Did you know that Great Smoky Mountains National Park is America’s most visited national park? I surely didn’t! Based on photos I have seen, I’ve never felt I would go out of my way to visit that park – but now, here we are, an easy day trip away. Yesterday we grabbed a handful of maps and the GPS and took off on a long, long drive.
The southern portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway is open, and links to the Newfound Gap road, the only road that goes from the North Carolina side of the park to the Tennessee side. We picked up the Blue Ridge Parkway around 30 miles from the national park.
We are two or three weeks to early for the blooming of the huge rhododendrons growing wild in these mountains, and the trees at elevations only slightly higher than Asheville are still starkly bare. This drive would be beautiful in the full bloom of spring, and pleasurable in summer – but it would be breathtaking in fall, dressed in autumn’s spectacular colors. This time of year must be the very least impressive time to make this drive.
The Blue Ridge Parkway was virtually deserted, and we saw many signs of the downed trees and rock falls that had to be removed to open the road to traffic after winter’s storms. We pulled into a huge parking lot at a high point on the road, sharing it with no more than a dozen cars, and took a short but strenuous hike to the top of a '”knob” for a long distance view.
Our stop along the Blue Ridge Parkway
Looking down on the parkway from the Knob
Later, we compared this to our stop at the high point of the Newfound Gap road in the national park – where we were lucky to find a parking place! Not only is this the high point on the Gap road, it is the state line between North Carolina and Tennessee AND a spot where the famous Appalachian Trail crosses the road. Cars, busses, swarming kids, yelling parents attempting to set up family photos to memorialize their Spring Break vacation. Whew! We squeezed into a parking spot, took our own photos (a challenge!), turned around and headed back down the hill.
My first time on the Appalachian Trail!
Odel standing in his birth state.
I am grateful that we entered the park on the North Carolina side, far less developed than the Tennessee side. Aside from the hike we took at our stop on the Blue Ridge Parkway, my favorite part of the day was our visit to the “Farmstead” at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.
Similar to the Chesser Homestead we visited in the Okefenokee Swamp, this farmstead illuminates the life of a self-sufficient farm family in the Appalachians. A small home, spring house, apple house, corn crib, hog pen, sorghum mill, stables… it is so interesting to see the importance of specific crops and animals to the life of these families. I have a much better understanding of why pork is so prominent on menus in the south!
We learned a lot wandering through the farmstead, and I realized that much of the enjoyment of the national park would come from exploring the history and lives of the people who settled here. Yet another place that would benefit from more time!